Having worked in the travel industry for nearly twenty-five years, I have been very fortunate to have travelled and cruised extensively for work. It has always been important for the trade to experience the products they sell but never more so than now, as travel resumes after the pandemic with the different procedures and protocols. Plus, the worry and concern of going abroad once again.
When I was asked to join an Oceania Cruises tester cruise going out of Copenhagen on board Marina, my initial thoughts were probably similar to many customers; “is it safe to go”, “what if I got a positive test whilst away”, “will cruising really be the same after the pandemic”, “what if I get any of the protocols wrong”... I made the decision that if I wouldn’t put myself forward to go, how could I expect any of our customers to do so, or my staff to have the confidence to sell travel in 2021, so I booked myself a flight and started researching what I needed to do.
I genuinely believe an agent has never been as important to a customer when booking a holiday or cruise as they are now. With the traffic light system, testing, new check-in procedures and the passenger locator form all to be researched and understood, you really do need the human element when booking a holiday in 2021. Whilst the task is daunting and each destination and booking different, as agents, we are looking into these procedures daily so can help make understanding what is required easy.
My cruise was departing from Copenhagen so I booked onto a British Airways flight out of London and looked into what the entry requirements for Denmark now were. Denmark at the time of travelling was listed as an Amber country, but as long as you had been vaccinated nothing further was required for UK citizens to enter the country. All I therefore needed to check-in for my flight was my e-ticket, passport and vaccination certificate, downloaded from the NHS App.
I was cruising with Oceania and they sent me detailed information of what I would require to join the ship, this now includes that all passengers complete their check-in online prior to arriving at the ship. Again, I would need to show proof of my vaccination certificate and then the cruise line would provide me with an antigen test at the cruise terminal which I would have to take to prove I was negative for Covid. If anybody does test positive they would not be allowed on the ship, but Oceania would have assisted in the procedures required with regards to isolating and getting home etc. To return to the UK I would have to provide another antigen test two days prior to arriving in the UK, Oceania confirmed that they would provide this on the ship and the certificate to produce for my flight home. I would also need to provide a PCR test on or before day two after arriving back in the UK, which I booked through a company called Randox whereby if you book through our agencies we offer a discount off of the tests. I was now ready to travel and headed down to Heathrow for my first trip in nearly eighteen months.
On arrival at Heathrow, the airport was busy but organised. Check-in was swift and easy and on production of my e-ticket, passport and vaccine certificate, I was issued my boarding pass. Security was simple and straightforward and from dropping my car at the meet-and-greet, I was sat having a coffee and some porridge waiting for my gate to open in under one hour! Masks had to be worn at the airport at all times as they are on the plane, but after many months of wearing them this was not an issue at all. The plane was surprisingly full with passengers seemingly eager to get travelling again for holidays or to see loved ones again. Even though the plane was full it felt safe and all passengers were given a sanitation pack upon boarding.
On arrival into Copenhagen, getting through passport control was straightforward and I was on my way to the ship within the hour. On arrival at the cruise terminal, once they had checked our online check-in details, passport and vaccine certificate, I was taken to do my antigen test with a medical professional. This again was really quick and easy and was just a swab from the inside of my nose. I was given a card with a number on it and sent to a room where passengers sat, socially distanced, for fifteen minutes until their number came up on a screen to confirm their test was negative. Then it was straight on the ship and off to my cabin!
I was allocated a very luxurious Penthouse suite, with my own butler ready to look after me. A bottle of champagne in my cabin was another lovely touch on arrival. The first thing you do when you ever get on a cruise ship is head for some lunch, so I made my way to Waves grill to enjoy some food up on deck and a nice glass of beer.
The food, like the ship, was stunning and after lunch, I spent some time exploring this beautiful ship. I was being hosted for dinner each night and was lucky enough to eat in Oceania Cruises’ fantastic fine dining restaurants, Jacques, Red Ginger & Toscana. Each was phenomenal with every dinner offering amazing food and wine. One particularly impressive bit of service was when a fellow diner was struggling to read the menu as they had left their reading glasses in their cabin. Lo-and-behold the waiter immediately rushes over to present a box of glasses, all different prescriptions which guests can borrow if needed, an amazing touch and an example of the phenomenal service on the ship.
The ship sailed from Copenhagen to Warnemunde in Germany and on my second day on the ship I booked an excursion to explore the Mecklenburg countryside, taking in the Bad Doberan Minster, the seaside town of Kunlungsborn and journey on a narrow-gauge railway. The excursion again was really well organised, with social distancing on the coach and advice throughout on procedures and protocols on the places we visited. Germany had different rules with regards to masks than the UK and Denmark, but again our guide made us aware of this before the excursion began so everyone knew what to bring and when to wear it.
As the ship was sailing in European waters the rules on board were slightly different to those when travelling in UK or International waters. This meant the cruise ship was set up with social distancing in all restaurants, bars and common areas, and all guests had to wear masks on the ship except when in their cabin or sitting down on deck or in a restaurant or bar. This “new normal” did not take anything away from the experience though. The crew on cruise ships always make the experience and it was humbling and heartening to hear how they were so pleased to be back on their “home” as they called it. It has been an incredibly tough eighteen months for the crew and staff with no work or salary with the ships vacant for so long.
On the final day of my cruise, I had to take another antigen test to prove I was negative for Covid-19 prior to flying back to the UK. Oceania had set this operation up in one of the speciality restaurants, giving each deck an hour allocation to attend and take the test to avoid queues. The process took less than two minutes and later that evening a certificate was delivered to my cabin as proof that it was negative. The final thing to complete then was the UK government passenger locator form. This is quite a long form and needs information from your passport, flight, your booked PCR test for when you get back and address details of where you are going in the UK. I would recommend people start completing this prior to their holiday and cruise, but a couple of parts can only be completed forty-eight hours prior to arriving back in the UK. Whilst long, once completed it sends you an email confirmation to present at the airport on your flight back home.
The flight back home was once again full. Check-in does take longer as you have to present your passport, flight ticket, vaccination certification, negative test certificate and passenger locator form confirmation at check-in. Staff remind you to have these ready while you queue so having arrived at the airport just over two hours prior to my flight, I still had time for a drink and bite to eat before boarding the aircraft. Positively, as you complete all of the procedures prior to getting on the flight, on arrival back into Heathrow getting through security was quick and easy and I was back in my car heading home in under an hour from touching down.
I had not quite realised how much I had missed travelling and cruising and all of the experiences it enriches our life with until I was back on a ship. I can truly say I am so glad I took the opportunity to get away and I hope my experiences will help my staff and our customers understand more about what travelling is like now and give everyone the confidence to take that step and begin travelling once more.
I, for one, cannot wait to do it all again very soon and will never take travel for granted again.